Aging Healthily – Sleeping better with Mindful Movement Practice

Sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.” – Thomas Dekker

As the quote implies sleep is important to our health and wellbeing. We are able to deal effectively with occasional sleep loss, but when the loss is chronic over a period of time, the sleep loss can markedly impair our health. It can lead to serious conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. It can also weaken the immune system, making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases.

Chronic sleep loss also affects us psychologically. It tends to impair our mood and our ability to control our emotions. Sleep loss impairs our cognitive ability and memory and even our sex lives. It can make us more accident prone and increase chronic pain levels. Needless to say, getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis is important.

Unfortunately as we age it becomes more and more difficult to get that good night’s sleep. Although the need for sleep doesn’t change with age sleep patterns change.  Older people have a more difficult time falling asleep and staying asleep, waking up several times during the night, and waking early in the morning. In addition, there is less deep sleep, so we don’t feel as rested. Insomnia is much higher in older adults affecting as many as 44%.

A safe and effective means for improving sleep in the elderly is important for the health and wellbeing of this vulnerable population. As a result the news that a simple, safe, ancient practice of mindful movement, including tai chi and qigong, may help improve sleep in the elderly is exciting. In today’s Research News article “The Effect of a Meditative Movement Intervention on Quality of Sleep in the Elderly: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”

Wu and colleagues summarized the research on mindful movement and sleep in the elderly and found that a three times per week practice significantly improved sleep quality in older adults.

In an upcoming post “Age Healthily – Tai Chi” tai chi practice was shown to help to slow cognitive decline with aging. These findings may be linked to the current findings as sleep loss is known to be associated with cognitive decline.

So, practice tai chi or qigong and age healthily by sleeping better



Mindfully Improve Psychological Wellbeing

Meditation, focusing, and CBT all have been shown to be effective treatments for a number of psychological problems. In previous research Sugiura and colleagues identified five factors in common to meditation, focusing, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), refraining from catastrophic thinking, self-observation, logical objectivity, detached coping, and acceptance. This raises the questions as to whether these common factors may be responsible for the common clinical outcomes, and which of these common factors is most important for each of a variety of disorders.

In today’s Research News article “Common Factors of Meditation, Focusing, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Longitudinal Relation of Self-Report Measures to Worry, Depressive, and Obsessive-Compulsive Symptoms Among Nonclinical Students.”

Sugiura and colleagues pursue these questions with a sample of undergraduate students.

They found that the greater the detached coping the lower the levels of obsessive-compulsive (OCD) symptoms. Detached coping emphasizes detachment and distancing from external conditions. This is exactly what mindfulness training is supposed to do, to allow us to see things objectively as they are. This suggests that mindfulness training is effective against obsessive-compulsive symptoms through its development of the skill of detached coping. Similarly, it was found that the greater the detached coping the lower the levels of depressive symptoms. This suggests that mindfulness training is effective against depression by allowing the individual to look at their situation more objectively, with detachment, and as a result not respond to it as something to feel bad about.

Worrying is also effectively reduced by mindfulness. The mechanism appears to be more complicated than that for OCD or depressive symptoms. It was found that the greater the level of refraining from catastrophic thinking the lower the levels of worrying, while the greater the level of self-observation the stronger the levels of worrying. Refraining from catastrophic thinking reflects the skills necessary to detach from and to suspend negative thinking, which frequently involves a fear of a future negative outcome, a worry. Mindfulness, by focusing on the present rather than the future interferes with worrying about the future and thus can be an effective antidote to worry.

Finally, Self-observation constitutes engagement in self-focus with curiosity and openness. Surprisingly it was associated with increased worrying. It appears that self-observation activates negatives beliefs about worrying. This suggests that it produces a worrying about worrying that increases worry.

So, it appears that the factors in common to meditation, focusing, and CBT of refraining from catastrophic thinking, self-observation, and detached coping are also associated with the symptoms common to psychological problems. But, that different factors are involved with different issues. This suggests that the three treatments may be effective by invoking common intermediaries for various disorders.

So, practice mindfulness and improve your psychological wellbeing.


Work Smarter with Meditation

It has become very trendy for business to incorporate meditation into the workday to help improve productivity. In fact, Google offers “Search Inside Yourself” classes to teach mindfulness at work. But, although there is a lot of anecdotal evidence of meditation improving work performance, there is actually very little systematic research on its effectiveness.

In today’s Research News article “The Association between Meditation Practice and Job Performance: A Cross-Sectional Study”

Shiba and colleagues take an empirical look at whether meditation improves job performance. They found that meditation practice was associated with better job performance, job satisfaction, and work engagement.

It should be noted that the study was correlational and as such does not show a causal connection. A controlled trial with manipulation of meditation is needed. Regardless, this is an important first step and suggests that meditation practice is associated with improved performance at work. This raises the question as to what does meditation do to facilitate work performance.

The most obvious possible mechanism is stress reduction. In the modern business environment stress is ever present. Stress can impair performance by decreasing the ability to concentrate, by increasing fatigue and nervousness, and by reducing wellness. Under high levels of stress people are more emotional and less rational in their behavior. Meditation has been well established to significantly reduce stress by altering both physiological and psychological responses to stress. Meditation doesn’t change the external sources of stress. Rather it improves job performance by reducing our responses to stressors.

But meditation does much more that can positively affect work. It can reduce the individual’s responsivity to “sunk costs.” People have a tendency to respond not only too what is appropriate for the present conditions but also tend to overly consider how much they have already invested in the situation, “sunk costs.” This can lead to decisions that are overly reliant upon past history rather than what is right for the present situation. Meditation by focusing the individual on the present moment can thus produce better decisions.

Meditation has been shown to improve emotional intelligence. It makes us better at understanding and responding to emotions. In other words it makes us smarter regarding our emotions. This can be a great asset in a job making the individual less apt to make rash emotional decisions and more likely to factor in but not be overly influenced by emotions.

Meditation has been shown to increase creativity. Hence, in a work environment the individual is more likely to come up with out-of-the-box solutions to problems. The individual can look at more alternative solutions and evaluate which are most likely to work the best.

Finally, meditation has been shown to improve concentration. Meditation is a practice in controlling and focusing attention. This practice pays off in increased ability to concentrate on a problem. This can improve job productivity by keeping the individual more “on task.” The ability to concentrate also improves memory by excluding inappropriate intrusive memories. This can allow for better use of information from past decisions to inform current decisions.

Hence meditation produces multiple effects that can positively affect job performance.

So meditate and work smarter.


Spirituality Improves End of Life

Death in inevitable, but that does not mean that it has to be awful. We don’t know how or when we will die, but we will die. It could be sudden or gradual or prolonged. We don’t know which it will be. But, regardless, how we approach it makes a huge difference.

Suzuki Roshi at the end of his life was in excruciating pain from cancer yet he told everyone around him “Don’t worry, It’s just Buddha suffering”. He passed with a smile on his face. Augustus Montague Toplady, the preacher author of the hymn “Rock of Ages” dying from tuberculosis said “”Oh, what delights! Who can fathom the joy of the third heaven? The sky is clear, there is no cloud; come Lord Jesus, come quickly!” These stories exemplify how our religiousness and spirituality can influence the quality of our passing.

In today’s Research News article “Religion, Senescence, and Mental Health: The End of Life Is Not the End of Hope”

Van Ness & Larson showed that individuals with high levels of religiousness/spirituality had significantly higher levels of well-being and were less likely to be depressed or suicidal at the end of life.

Americans 65+ portray themselves as more religious than do their younger counterparts. Hence it would appear that people understand that religiousness/spirituality can help in confronting end of life. But, how exactly does religiousness/spirituality help when dealing with eminent death?

Religiousness/spirituality can function by providing hope that helps the individual overcome increasing disease, disability, and emotional difficulties. Indeed, it has been shown that people high in religiousness/spirituality are significantly lower in hopelessness. This hope may take the form of belief in a life after death, reincarnation, or rebirth. Such a hope may be interpretable as a symbol of personal integrity that survives the indignities of illness, disability, and dissolution. This can be a great comfort to the dying person improving well-being and decreasing depression.

Religiousness/spirituality in older individuals is associated with a higher sense of well-being. This in turn can help the individual cope with the afflictions and challenges they face as death approaches. It can also help to bring families and communities to the dying process. It is often these connections that are the most important to the dying.

When approaching death, religiousness/spirituality can provide the structure to grapple with the basic questions of existence. Without it the person may experience spiritual distress. “When our bodies are under assault from disease or illness and our minds are reeling from the threat of disability or death, our spirit is there to hold it all together.” (Rev. Dr. Walter J. Smith).

So, practice religiousness/spirituality to be better prepared for death.


Age Healthily – Protect the Brain with Yoga

The aging process involves a progressive deterioration of the body including the brain. It actually begins in the late 20s and continues throughout the lifespan. It cannot be stopped or reversed. But, the deterioration can be slowed and to some extent counteracted. This is true for both physical and mental deterioration including degeneration and shrinkage of the nervous system.

Aging healthily to a large extent involves strategies to slow down the deterioration. Meditation has been shown to slow down the deterioration of the nervous system with aging. It acts by increasing the amount of grey matter in the brain through a process referred to as neuroplasticity. Brain areas that are heavily used tend to grow larger while those that are underutilized tend to grow smaller.

In a previous post we described how yoga slowed or reversed age related decline in muscle strength and flexibility (See below). In today’s Research News article “Neuroprotective effects of yoga practice: age-, experience-, and frequency-dependent plasticity”

Villemure and colleagues demonstrate for the first time that yoga practice also protects the nervous system from deterioration. They showed that with age there was a decline on brain grey matter volume in healthy physically active people, but there was no decline in experienced yoga practitioners.

Interestingly, the more yoga practice the better the protection, the higher the grey matter volume. Yoga consists of postures, breath practice and meditation. It appears that the combination of postures and meditation are the most significant aspects of yoga practice for neuroprotection. It was already known that meditation helped to protect against age related brain deterioration. These results suggest that yoga adds another neuroprotective element in practicing postures.

Yoga practitioners had larger sensory cortex areas than non-practitioners. This is probably because of yoga’s emphasis on paying attention to sensations and visualization techniques used during practice. Also, the largest effects of yoga were seen in the left hemisphere. There is strong evidence that the left hemisphere is responsible for positive emotions. This then suggests that yoga promotes happiness by increasing the size of the left hemisphere. In addition, enlargement was seen in areas responsible for stress management. This provides a potential mechanism for yoga’s ability to relieve stress.

These are exciting findings. The results could provide credence for the long rumored ability of yoga to increase lifespan. They also suggest that the meditative aspects of yoga are very important and that using yoga simply for exercise may be ignoring  very important aspect of yoga for the protection of the brain.

So, practice yoga and age healthily.


Previous Post

Age Healthily – Yoga

The aging process involves a progressive deterioration of the body. This cannot be stopped or reversed. But, the deterioration can be slowed and to some extent counteracted. This is true for both physical and mental deterioration. But, today’s article, “Age related differences of selected Hatha yoga practices on anthropometric characteristics, muscular strength and flexibility of healthy individuals.”

is focused on the physical deterioration in aging.

As we age we increase body fat and loose muscles mass and strength. The bones become less dense and weaker and thereby more prone to breaking. Cartilage that lines the joints tend to thin leading to arthritis and the ligaments that hold the muscles and joints together tend to harden making us less flexible and prone to injury. Inactivity in aging can exacerbate all of these musculoskeletal changes.

Yoga practice appears to help to slow or reverse these changes. Today’s article demonstrates that the increase in fat mass with aging and the consequent increase in body weight are slowed by daily Hatha yoga practice. The decreased muscle strength as well as the decreased flexibility is also slowed in yoga practitioners. Hence, yoga is an excellent practice for maintaining the individual’s strength, flexibility, and body composition all of which are important for healthy aging.

In addition to the direct benefits there are also a plethora of indirect benefits. The individual looks and feels better. This can lead to improved self-image and even higher levels of activity. These in turn can lead to more frequent and better social interactions. This in addition to the social interactions inherent in group yoga practice. The loss of these social interactions are a major contributor to loneliness and depression in aging. Hence, indirectly, yoga practice can lead to improved social and psychological health.

So, age healthily by practicing yoga!


Destress with Mindfulness


Stress is a reaction to a stimulus that disturbs our physical or mental equilibrium. Given this definition, it seems that in the modern world most components of our life are stressors. Some stress (acute stress) is positive and actually strengthens the body, it can be exciting, and it keeps us on our toes. But stress that persists for a long period of time (chronic stress) it wears our resources down and can become detrimental to our health.

Chronic stress can produce a condition called distress which can lead to headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, and problems sleeping and can make other diseases worse. Stress is epidemic in that United States. It has been found that over two thirds of Americans experienced symptoms of stress such as fatigue, irritability or anger, or changes in sleeping habits. Forty-three percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress. 75% to 90% of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.

Clearly, stress is a major problem. Stress is not always under our control as it originates most often from external sources. Since in modern American life stress appears to be unavoidable, it is important to identify treatments to mitigate or prevent the symptoms of stress.

In today’s Research News article “Physical Activity, Mindfulness Meditation, or Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback for Stress Reduction: A Randomized Controlled Trial.”

van der Zwan and associates demonstrate that meditation, physical exercise, and biofeedback are equally effective in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression, and improve sleep quality and psychological well-being.

These findings are noteworthy as it is important to be able to have a variety of treatment options. The patient then can choose a treatment that seems best suited to themselves and their life style and life conditions. It is significant, though, that van der Zwan and colleagues found that most participants preferred mindfulness meditation (52 %, compared to 24 % for both physical exercise, and biofeedback). Hence mindfulness meditation is the option preferred by most patients.

A good reason for the popularity of meditation may be that meditation is restful, relaxing, and pleasant and does not require specific equipment or visit to a specialist’s clinic or a gym. It also is known to improve happiness, creativity, relationship quality, and even help ward off infection. It reduces the physiological changes induced by stress by reducing sympathetic activation and the levels of stress hormones. Furthermore, it helps us to better understand ourselves and others and improves our ability to control our lives. It would seem to be an ideal for stress management.

So, practice mindful meditation and destress.


Yoga for Trauma in Children

Yoga’s ability to touch us on every level of our being—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—makes it a powerful and effective means for trauma victims to reinhabit their bodies safely, calm their minds, experience emotions directly, and begin to feel a sense of strength and control.” – van der Kolk

Trauma comes in many forms, from abuse to warfare, from children to the elderly, from natural and man-made causes, and from the rich to the poor. But, regardless of the cause or the characteristics of the individuals, it leaves in its wake a syndrome of posttraumatic symptoms which can haunt the victims for the rest of their lives. These include persistent recurrent re-experiencing of the traumatic event, including flashbacks and nightmares, loss of interest in life, detachment from other people, increased anxiety and emotional arousal, including outbursts of anger, difficulty concentration, and jumpiness, startling easily.

There have been many treatments employed each with varying but limited success. Mostly these treatments have been used with adults. But, children who are victims of trauma have been the focus of very few studies of therapeutic interventions. The lack of focus is surprising as it’s been estimated that of adolescents, 8% had been exposed to sexual assault, 17% physical assault, and 39% had witnessed violence. It is estimated that 15% of children show symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Mindfulness training and yoga practice have been found to be effective for trauma in adults, particularly from the middle and upper classes. It has yet to be shown if they can be employed effectively with children and with individuals from low socioeconomic categories. In today’s Research News article “Yoga to Reduce Trauma-Related Distress and Emotional and Behavioral Difficulties Among Children Living in Orphanages in Haiti: A Pilot Study”

Culver and colleagues begin to address this issue by employing yoga training to treat traumatized orphans in Haiti. They found that yoga reduced the symptoms of trauma in these children and showed a trend toward a reduction in behavioral difficulties.

These findings are very encouraging. Trauma affects both the mind and the body. Yoga works with both, but is particularly targeted to the body. The relaxation produced by yoga practice is a soothing antidote to the hyperaroused state that is so characteristic of trauma victims. Yoga appears to reduce activity in the sympathetic nervous system, the fight or flight system. Hence, yoga appears to produce both muscular and physiological relaxation, directly addressing a symptom of trauma.

The practice of focusing attention that is so central to yoga training addresses the difficulties with concentration that are characteristic of trauma victims. The focus of attention in yoga is on the sensations from the body. This can directly address the numbing of sensation that is frequently reported by trauma victim. In addition, getting in touch with bodily sensations helps trauma victims get more in touch with their emotions allowing them to better work with them.

So, yoga appears to be an excellent treatment for trauma alone but preferably in combination with other treatment modalities.


Mindfulness Treatment for Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s Disease (PD) has received public attention because of its occurrence in a number of celebrities such as Mohammed Ali, Michael J Fox, and Linda Ronstadt. PD is a disease of the central nervous system that attacks the dopamine neurotransmitter system in the brain. There are around one million people in the U.S. living with PD and about 60,000 people are diagnosed with PD every year. PD is associated with aging as the vast majority of patients are diagnosed after age 50.

PD is a progressive degenerative disease. Its symptoms include resting tremor, slow movements, muscle rigidity, problems with posture and balance, loss of automatic movements, and slurring of speech. PD itself is not fatal but is often associated with related complications can reduce life expectancy, such as falls, choking, and cardiovascular problems.

Because PD is exclusively a physiological disorder it is surprising that mindfulness practice can help improve the symptoms. But it can as shown in today’s Research News article “Mindfulness Training among Individuals with Parkinson’s Disease: Neurobehavioral Effects.”

Pickut and colleagues demonstrate that mindfulness training improves motor performance and quality of life but increases pain in PD patients.

These are exciting and remarkable findings that a simple practice like mindfulness training could relieve the symptoms that result from degeneration of a neural system. But this just goes to illustrate that the separation of mind and body is far less than we assume. What are the mechanisms by which mindfulness training might improve PD symptoms?

A key mechanism might be via stress reduction that is so emblematic of mindfulness training. There is a clear relationship between stress and PD symptoms. When PD sufferers experience stress their symptoms get worse and when stress is lowered the symptoms improve. So, the stress reduction produced by mindfulness may well be responsible for the improvements.

Mindfulness training is known to produce significant changes directly in the nervous system. It has been shown that mindfulness training in PD patients increases grey matter density in the hippocampus and the amygdala. The same thing was found in areas of the right and left caudate nucleus, left occipital lobe, and left thalamus. These areas are known to be damaged in PD. So mindfulness training may act by improving brain areas that deteriorate in PD thus reducing symptoms.

Remarkably, mindfulness training has not been shown to produce improvements in the cerebellum, a structure responsible for motor coordination. The cerebellum increases in size by the usual care for PD. This may suggest that mindfulness training acts in a different way than directly working on the motor systems, perhaps by accentuating the activity of structures that take over and compensate for lost abilities.

One rather surprising finding was that mindfulness training actually increased pain perception in PD patients. This is exactly the opposite of its normally pain reducing properties. Pickut and colleagues, however, observed a marked increase in mindful observing in the trained PD patients. Buy becoming better at observing their bodies these patients may be becoming better at noting their pain levels.

So, mindfulness should be employed to help patients with Parkinson’s Disease.


Stop worrying

“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.” ― Dalai Lama XIV

Humans worry a lot. It is built into our DNA. Being concerned about what might happen in the future from an evolutionary perspective is a very good thing. It can help us anticipate or prevent problems from happening. It can help us avoid harmful occurrences. Worry about what another driver in front of us might do is useful in preventing accidents. So, worrying can help us survive.

Worry involves cognitive processes (thoughts) that help us to project into the future and anticipate potentially harmful events. But, worry itself can become a problem. Worrying is an unpleasant state. It can produce fear and anxiety. It produces unpleasant feelings. So, we can even worry about the bad internal feelings that worrying produces and end up worrying about worrying. It can become a vicious cycle and can make us miserable. “Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy” (Leo Buscaglia).

Worry can be useful but if we worry about every possible negative outcome or event it becomes rumination and produces more trouble than it prevents. As Mark Twain quipped “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them have never happened.” So, we need to use worry in constructive ways while not letting it get out of hand and wreak havoc with our emotions.

Contemplative practices have been shown to decrease worry and rumination. The mindfulness training appears to be an antidote to being overly worried. In today’s Research News article “Dissociation between the cognitive and interoceptive components of mindfulness in the treatment of chronic worry

Delgado-Pastor and colleagues demonstrated that mindfulness training reduces worry, depression, and anxiety in overly worried female students. They took it, however, one step further and found that a mindfulness practice that involved particularly paying attention to the internal feelings associated with worry was more effective in reducing worry than a practice focused on the thoughts surrounding worry. In other words, it appeared that focusing on feeling rather than thoughts was the best strategy for dealing with excessive worry but both strategies were helpful.

What does mindfulness do to help regulate worry? For one thing it helps us focus on the present and experience it in preference for the past or the future. Since worry involves concerns about future occurrences to some extent based upon past experiences, the more one can focus on the present the less opportunity there is for worries to arise. Mindfulness training also involves learning to view events non-judgmentally. It trains the individual to accept the worry, experience it, and then move on. This reduces the impact of the worry and prevents the development of worrying about worrying.

Particularly by learning to mindfully pay attention to the feelings arising with worry the individual can learn to experience the unpleasant feelings associated with the anxiety produced with non-judgmental awareness. This undercuts the power of the worries. Learning to mindfully pay attention to the thought process involved in worry, the individual can learn to rationally evaluate the thoughts and sort out which anticipated future events are likely and should be avoided and which are too unlikely to be concerned about, eliminating many worries altogether.

So, be mindful, follow the Dalai Lama’s advice and stop worrying.


Does spirituality account for mindfulness’ anti-depressive effects.

Mindfulness training has physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual components. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is even more complex as it contains yoga and body scan in addition to meditation. Because of the complexity and the variety of effects of these practices it is difficult to know which components are effective in promoting well-being and which are not.

In today’s Research News article “Decreased Symptoms of Depression After Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: Potential Moderating Effects of Religiosity, Spirituality, Trait Mindfulness, Sex, and Age.”

It is well established that MBSR is quite effective in treating and preventing depression. But it is not clear who benefits the most and what characteristics of the individual might be related to MBSR effectiveness. Greeson and colleagues investigate this question, particularly whether spirituality and religiosity or other demographic characteristics might be important for MBSR effects on depression. They demonstrate that MBSR acts independent of these other characteristics; it works regardless of level of spirituality or religiousness.

These results should not be surprising as chronic depression, as opposed to reactive depression, appears to be primarily physiologically based. It appears to be a problem with neurotransmitter balance in the central nervous system and is highly related to genetic inheritance. So, it is not surprising that behavioral and psychological characteristics such as  spirituality and religiousness would not be associated with effective treatment.

MBSR, like all contemplative practices, has marked physiological effects. It is known to change the nervous system, increasing the size of some areas, decreasing others, and altering connectivity. It also changes hormonal balances and activity in the peripheral nervous system producing greater calm and lower arousal. It is likely that these physiological effects of MBSR are responsible for its effectiveness in treating depression.

This is not to discount the importance of spirituality and religiousness. They can be very helpful with a number of conditions. Had Greeson and colleagues investigated MBSR effects on more experientially based psychological problems, such as eating disorders or panic disorder, they might have seen a large impact of spirituality and religiousness.

It is clear though that depression can be treated effectively with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.